Written By: Claudia Stack
Whether restored, overgrown with kudzu or demolished, Rosenwald schools changed history in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender Counties.
Outside of a few alumni groups, not many people in the Cape Fear region today know that three generations ago African American families paid their taxes, then had to raise money again to obtain schools for their children. The names of philanthropists who supported early African American schools in Wilmington—most notably James H. Gregory and Samuel Williston—still enjoy recognition. However, between 1917 and 1932 thousands of local African Americans partnered with the Rosenwald Fund to build schools for their children in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties. This investment in schools expanded educational access during segregation and produced leaders whose influence still ripples across North Carolina today.
“The surprising efforts of our colored population to obtain education…are growing to a habit” John Alvord, Superintendent of the Freedman’s Bureau observed in July, 1866. In the five decades that followed the Civil War, formerly enslaved people established many schools without assistance from government or outside groups. For example, in western Pender County the tiny Love Grove school was founded by the community during Reconstruction and later operated as a public school until 1958. In Burgaw, the C.F. Pope School was established in 1891 as a school for Baptist ministers, but changed its mission to meet a growing demand for general education. It was eventually taken over by the public school system in 1939.
There were countless less formal educational efforts as well. Many people acquired basic literacy in Sunday schools held in newly established African American churches, or from informal classes that took place in houses or barns. Around 1900, Peter Royals, great-grandfather of District Court Judge James H. Faison III, taught reading to his neighbors in a house in Rocky Point in Pender County.
Despite these efforts, facilities for African American students lagged far behind those for white students. In the 1920s, large brick schools were erected to consolidate many smaller schools for white students. Their discarded wooden buildings were sometimes repurposed as schools for African American children, but the situation was still much the same as it had been in 1914, when Nathan C. Newbold, North Carolina’s first State Agent for Negro Schools, remarked: “The average Negro schoolhouse is really a disgrace to an independent civilized society.”
Had it not been for the philanthropic vision of Julius Rosenwald, the organizing genius of Booker T. Washington, and countless families who raised money, African American students in the Cape Fear region would have fallen even further behind their white counterparts in the first half of the 20th century. Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, applied his business acumen to philanthropy. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, influenced Rosenwald to join the board of Tuskegee. In 1912, Rosenwald donated $25,000, and Washington used part of that donation to assist six communities near Tuskegee in building primary schools. This effort was so successful that the program was expanded and they began providing architectural plans. The African American architect and Wilmington native Robert R. Taylor, a professor at Tuskegee, helped to design the first Rosenwald school plans. They were published in the 1915 booklet “The Negro Rural School and its Relation to the Community.”
In 1917, Rosenwald created the Julius Rosenwald Fund to administer his philanthropic efforts. By the time the Fund ended its grants for school construction in 1932 it had assisted in the construction of 4,977 schools, 163 shops, and 217 boarding houses for teachers across the South. North Carolina communities raised funds to build 813 Rosenwald schools, more than any other state.
According to the Rosenwald Fund archive at Fisk University, communities in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties constructed 39 buildings on 34 school campuses, with the majority built in the 1920s. Although income for rural African American families averaged less than one dollar per day, and even that pittance was unreliable for sharecropping families, African American families in the tri-county area donated $27,375 toward Rosenwald school construction.
Typically, the African American community raised at least 20 percent of the cost of a school, and often also donated materials and labor. The Rosenwald Fund usually matched their contribution up to about 20 percent, but would not release funds until the local school board agreed to complete the building and incorporate the school into the public system. Local whites donated as well, although their contributions did not close the enormous resource gap between the two school systems.
“They wanted the students to be well-rounded…that’s why they stressed plays and reciting poems,” retired educator William Jordan recalled about his teachers at Pender County Training School (PCTS) in the documentary “Under the Kudzu” (stackstories, 2012). Jordan attended PCTS from 1948-1952. Prior to attending high school at the complex of buildings that made up PCTS in Rocky Point, he attended the one-room Bowden Rosenwald school approximately six miles to the north. [Although the two schools differed greatly in appearance, as Rosenwald schools they shared a common origin and certain architectural hallmarks. Buildings at both schools featured the large banks of windows that maximized natural light in the era before rural electrification].
African American residents of Brunswick County raised $2,000 for a four-room building that was completed in 1922 as the Brunswick County Training School (BCTS). The “training school” designation indicated a school that included high school grades, which at that time qualified its students to be teachers. The first BCTS building burned down just months after construction, and $4,500 of insurance money was lost in a bank failure in 1923. Undeterred, African Americans then raised $5,050 toward a new six-room BCTS building in Southport that was completed in 1924.
Nine wooden Rosenwald schools were built in New Hanover County, but the only Rosenwald-related school still standing in Wilmington is the stately brick building on 10th street that is the former Williston Industrial School (later Williston High School, and currently in use by Gregory Elementary). Williston originated in 1866 and occupied various buildings over the years. In the late 1920s the Rosenwald Fund began to emphasize larger, urban schools. The Fund contributed $7,600 towards the construction of the 1931, 20-classroom building and attached shop that was the new home of Williston Industrial School. In 1936, Williston was completely destroyed by fire, but it was reconstructed according to the same plans.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact of Rosenwald schools on the Cape Fear region. They made up roughly half of the schools available to African American students from the 1920s to the early 1950s. Families not only contributed to their construction and maintenance, but also boarded teachers in their homes and purchased books and equipment. Despite being chronically underfunded, Rosenwald schools across North Carolina developed a reputation for academic rigor. Although openly advocating equality would have cost them their jobs, teachers in Rosenwald schools quietly equipped their students with fortitude, critical reading and speaking skills. These were qualities that would be on display to the world during the Civil Rights era.
Claudia Stack is an educator and filmmaker who has worked on documenting and preserving regional Rosenwald schools since 2003. To see trailers from her films please see www.stackstories.com. To learn more about the Rosenwald Schools, check out You Need a Schoolhouse, and The Rosenwald Schools of the American South, two great books on the topic, or visit the following web resources: www.historysouth.org/rosenwaldhome, www.hpo.dcr.state.nc.us/rosenwald/rosenwald.htm, and www.stackstories.com/rosenwald-school-resources/.
Photograph Captions and Credits T to B:
1. The newly completed Williston Industrial School building. The Rosenwald Fund donated $7,600 toward the overall cost of $190,000. (Photograph Courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library)
2. Southport County Training School. (Photograph Courtesy of the Fisk Rosenwald Fund Archive)
3. Group of PCTS teachers. On the back row, far left is Singleton C. Anderson, the legendary Agriculture teacher who is credited with increasing property values in Pender County by organizing home building and landscaping efforts. He helped both African American and white farmers alike to improve their crops and livestock. (Photograph Courtesy of Margaret Gill)
4. A five-classroom building that was completed with Rosenwald Fund assistance at Pender County Training School (PCTS) in 1928. It was one of four Rosenwald funded buildings at the PCTS complex over the years. (Photograph Courtesy of the Fisk Rosenwald Fund Archive)